Five years after Ford announced its purchase of Michigan Central Station, Detroit’s symbolically abandoned train depot, its plans for a Corktown campus dedicated to mobility and innovation are nearing completion. 

The automaker unveiled its rehab of the adjacent Book Depository building this week and expects to wrap up all work on the Michigan Central campus by early next year, a project with an estimated cost of $950 million. 

We also got a sneak peek of the train station’s interior last month, when Mayor Mike Duggan held his 2023 State of the City address inside, touting the renovation and predicting “Detroit will pass Silicon Valley” in leading the auto industry’s future. When it begins opening this summer, the train station’s 650,000 square feet are slated to be home to public and event space, retail, restaurants, a hotel and offices.

But back in 2018, no ideas were off the table — and some of them were a whole lot bolder. In September of that year, Detour checked out a community engagement event that brought together dozens of millennial entrepreneurs and creatives to share their ideas for the future of the train station. Read on for the dispatch, featuring recycled materials, sprawling public walkways, drones and naturally a DJ spinning Aretha Franklin.

The following piece was originally published by Detour in August 2018. It includes minor edits for clarification. 

It’s Friday afternoon in Corktown, and “Respect” is wafting out of the abandoned train station — if we can still call it that. A DJ is hyping up the crowd inside, trying to get them to sing along the day after Aretha Franklin’s death. Past the line of fencing, there’s a check-in table and then with the right credentials it’s just a few steps inside, where the vibe is more “conference” than “club.” Lunch is wrapping up, and from the booth, the DJ keeps the tunes going for a bit under the soaring, dilapidated ceiling of Ford’s future Corktown campus. Off to the side, a couple of commissioned artists are sketching the proceedings in real-time.

Front and center are about 200 local millennial leaders from the worlds of tech and entrepreneurship clustered in groups around big tables. They’ve been invited to a daylong series of workshops and design challenges for the Reimagined Detroit Tech event and are adding sticky notes full of ideas to giant diagrams of the train station’s first floor, which Ford has committed to keep open for the public.

After a whirlwind brainstorming session, it’s time to present their ideas for turning Detroit into a tech ecosystem, our own version of Silicon Valley, with Michigan Central Station as the locus point. They’re encouraged to think big — moonshots — and design space for 75, 100 years into the future, as part of Ford’s efforts to seek community feedback in their redevelopment process.

Crowd of several dozen millennial-aged entrepreneurs inside raw Michigan Central Station interior, gathered around tales with building, schematics, post-it notes and other brainstorming materials. In background people look at hanging poster designs.
Entrepreneurs and creatives brainstorm at Ford’s Reimagined Detroit Tech design challenge event, inside Michigan Central Station in August 2018. Photo credit: Courtesy of Ford

The groups pitch visions focused on education, mobility, health and more. Some are simple: community gardens, tech classes and a food lab. Others are wilder. One group proposes a manufacturing facility that makes products from community recycling materials, then sells them at a store on-site. Another describes a virtual reality tour room, where you can step into any environment to seek inspiration for your latest project.

An idea for a High Line-esque park running high up around the perimeter of the atrium captures people’s attention. One proposal calls for all the service retailers on the premises to also offer job training, so if there’s a hair salon, they’ll also have to train stylists.

In one of the coolest proposals, a group suggests designing for all generations: Older residents would have special pathways for indoor recreation, akin to mall walking. Middle-aged Detroiters could get one-on-one tech training and support in pods dotted around the space. And over all their heads, drones would be swooping through the air, coded and piloted by local students.

It’s a lovely picture, and maybe it’ll become a reality. Dave Dubensky, Ford Land chairperson and CEO (editor’s note: Dubensky stepped down in 2021), wants participants to come back when the space is complete and be able to point to elements they had suggested. But there’s a lot to get worked out first.

“Just engaging (with the community) on a routine basis is super important,” Dubensky tells Detour. “But I’ve got my safety team running around here, they’re worried about a pillar falling. So that’s the one thing we’ve got to balance here.”

One group is talking about their moonshot of a zero crime rate, while James Alexander, one of the artists and a College for Creative Studies student, tells Detour no single idea is his favorite. He just hopes the building gets put to any use, lest the blight seep out any further.

As the groups pitch their ideas, the distressed backdrop — what a real estate agent might call “raw” and someone else might call loose bricks — is lit up in a dramatic deep Ford blue. The soaring ceilings and artful decay inspire some groups to wax poetic about a modern-day acropolis, leaving some of the interior preserved as-is or deploying “Transformers”-like tech that would allow elements of the building to change from the current state to sleek and modern at the press of a button.

But there’s another local entrepreneur shaking his head in frustration. 

“I can’t stand it,” he says about the ruins look, adding that he was impatient for Ford to fix up the interior already. “I’m betting you they’re going to leave that graffiti,” he quips, pointing to two tags on the wall far above.

Chris Small, a global campus master planner at Ford Land, said they’d continue to solicit community feedback as they planned out the space, “but we’re also going to start to market-analysis and program out what (is) really needed in the area…. So when we start to design, we’re building a space that will thrive.”

Long story short: Don’t count your drones before they’re flying. The only thing that’s clear right now is that Ford is taking it slow on the decision-making process, and limiting their public commitments while keeping the lines of communication open. It’s heartening that they’re creating opportunities to hear local ideas, outside of any community engagement required through the city. Now we’ll wait and see if their plans actually take resident needs and interest to heart. 

Kate (she/her) is passionate about journalism that involves Detroiters from the start and helps readers solve problems and find joy in their daily lives. Her favorite Detroit spot to watch the sunset, play soccer, watch the freighters go by and feel a little haunted is Historic Fort Wayne.